Cultural background: taiko drumming

One of the first forms of Japanese music many people encounter is the dramatic and powerful taiko drum ensemble. A perennial favorite at festivals and fairs, both throughout Japan and overseas, the driving rhythm has come to represent the spirit and strength of Japanese culture. Thus, it’s surprising for many to learn that taiko ensembles are in fact a modern innovation, though they make use of one of the oldest instruments known in the country. This phenomenon was made possible by Japan’s peculiar national situation in the 20th century and by the dedicated efforts of one percussionist.

Since ancient times drums had been used in a number of settings in Japan, particularly ritualistic ones, but in the warring states they acquired a new prominence as instruments of communication during battle. The warlord Takeda Shingen, in particular, assembled a corps of 21 taiko performers who conveyed messages to faraway allies and pounded out appropriately dramatic background music during battles. (That NHK historical drama’s climactic battle scene may have been more realistic than you thought!) Following the death of Takada Shingen, a distinctive taiko music continued to be played in the Yamanashi and Nagano areas as part of his legacy, but it slowly died out, until in the 1950s the jazz drummer Oguchi Daihachi was asked by a relative to translate an old page of sheet music that was a relic of this Osuwa-taiko style. He decided to not only recreate the traditional songs, but to add original layers, and assembled a team of drummers on instruments of various sizes in the spirit of Takeda Shingen’s drum corps.

This style of music quickly spread, gaining notoriety in particular from Oguchi’s group’s appearance at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The simple yet dramatic nature of this style struck a chord with a Japanese public searching for a way to connect with Japan’s historical legacy in a Europeanized, postwar country. A massive number of taiko groups in this style quickly sprang up, first around Japan, then in the United States, Australia, and Europe. One of the first groups to perform in the U.S., Ondekoza, achieved notoriety for running the Boston marathon in their taiko performance attire, a testament to the Spartan training they cultivated during their training on Sado Island in Niigata. A breakaway group, Kodo, maintains enormous success, touring, teaching, and hosting Sado Island’s annual Earth Celebration festival.

The taiko drum ensemble has become such a popular staple throughout Japan that it’s hard to imagine such groups weren’t around less than a century ago. Thanks to a nationwide revival of interest in traditional Japanese performing arts and the dedicated efforts of Oguchi Daihachi, Ondekoza, Kodo, and performers worldwide, this modern take on Japan’s most ancient instrument is a huge draw for players and audiences, and continues to spread and develop in fascinating new ways.